When we entered the pandemic era last year, it suddenly seemed like everyone was talking about how jarring it was to have their lives interrupted, and how that was making them reevaluate their priorities, as a matter of comfort or survival.
Julien Baker got there first. Following her 2018 tour with boygenius, an egalitarian collaboration with her indie rock singer-songwriter peers Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, Baker listened to the people in her inner circle who said she needed to take a break from the constant grind of touring and the self-destructive patterns she’d fallen back on and clear her head.
“You finally achieve this modicum of success and stability with music, and since that’s been the sole object of your work for your whole life, it seems terrifying for that to stop,” she says, measuring out her words with characteristic circumspectness for a Zoom audience of two (this interviewer and a radio rep). “And then it did, and I was removed from it for a while, and I just enjoyed being a person who can be fulfilled by things that aren’t music.”
But she found reassurance even in that area: “I was still making music, because I love making music, and it fulfills me to write and arrange songs.”
Baker used some of her time off of the road to return to Middle Tennessee State and finish her literature degree. She’d had to put her studies on hold after her DIY, 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle, found a national audience well beyond her friends and acquaintances.
It wasn’t just her songs, with their delicately crescendoing self-scrutiny and visceral distillations of existential searching, that gained notice. It was also her equally literary style of communication outside of music. Here was this 20-year old who’d spent her Memphis adolescence in and around both evangelical Christianity and a straight edge punk scene, and articulated her beliefs with keen thoughtfulness and youthful certainty. You can find countless interviews and articles in which she was invited to hold forth on her views on everything from Christian socialism to sexuality, addiction, mental health and veganism.
“From the very beginning, people asked me those ten-dollar questions,” she reflects. “I was very young when I had the opportunity to speak to a larger than average pool of people, and I wrote serious songs about serious things, because those were on my mind. Then the more that I talked about those things throughout interviews, the more I felt myself become obsessive about it: ‘If people are going to ask me these questions and they’re going to be documented in the public record, then I had better know what I’m talking about. I had better try every day to read religious texts, theological texts, sociology, anthropology, whatever books that people suggest to me about racism and queerness. And I had better absorb all the information I can, so that I can use this platform that I’ve been given to contribute something meaningful to discourse.’”
With the benefit of distance, she came to a realization: “That is such a huge expectation to put on a person. I didn’t want to do something wrong. I didn’t want to do something harmful.”
As Baker wrote for what would become her third solo album, Little Oblivions, at her East Nashville home, she allowed biting skepticism to seep into the painstaking, conversational poetry of her lyrics. “I guess I don’t mind losing my conviction,” she murmurs stoically during “Relative Fiction,” before arriving at a bruised pop-rock hook, ashamed at having been on yet another bender and weary of being so acutely fixated on a faith-based moral code:
I’ve got no business praying
I’m finished being good
Now I can finally be okay
In not the way I thought I should
“The lyrics are particularly brutal in that one,” she says, before pausing to consider the relief she found in writing that way: “It’s okay to lose conviction when you recognize that the things that you were convicted about are not as simple as you thought.”
Even as Baker got some distance from her airtight earlier worldview, she grew nostalgic for the thrashing intensity of the shows her teenaged band Forrister played at churches and other all-ages spots.
The haunted, minimalistic solo sound of her album Sprained Ankle was as much a practical matter as an aesthetic choice; she’d worked out the songs on her own in a rehearsal space at MTSU, and her band mates were unavailable when her friend, a studio intern, secured a bit of recording time. But since she found critical acclaim from highbrow and hipster outlets alike with nothing but her Telecaster and effects pedals for accompaniment, that simply became her thing.
“I grew up listening to heavy music that was theatrical, operatic,” says Baker. “In college, I was trying to keep expanding my awareness of what music can sound like. There’s this idea of canon songwriters that are able to make simple music in a way that the indie publications will like, and that [became] the music that I [thought] of as more deliberate and more highbrow for some reason. I lost my appreciation for heavy music being sophisticated, because that wasn’t being represented in what my adult friends were listening to on indie radio or seeing on their social media. So I was like, ‘Okay, well, then, I need to tamp down the extremity of my noisemaking,’ and I don’t know why I felt like that.”
Baker has returned to freely making noise. “I think about a song like ‘Hardline,’ and that could have been a Forrister song, like, seven years ago,” she points out.
It’s not merely a matter of turning up the volume; she’s introduced dynamic, new tensions in her music, stretching her elongated vocal lines, delivered with a keening or wilting attack, across intricate tangles of accompaniment.
Baker plays nearly every part on her albums herself, in addition to producing, and her Memphis-based engineer Calvin Lauber prepared for their sessions by miking all the instruments in the studio each day, so that Baker could dart from one to the next. For the first time, she even wanted a drum kit at her disposal.
“I don’t think Julien put herself in a box to say, ‘I have to make this kind of record,’” Lauber says on the phone. “I think it was more like, ‘Give me every instrument and I’m just going to show people what I do when I have all of this stuff at my fingertips.’”
The recording process was simultaneously experimental and meticulous. “I bet it was hundreds of passes of layering instruments,” Baker reflects. “We would lay down a guitar part and then maybe a little piano part, and then listen to it back in the studio and think, ‘That piano melody is too busy. There’s too much movement there. I want to phrase that chord another way.’ It was just trial-and-error, but it felt really good because it didn’t feel rushed. It didn’t feel tedious. It just felt like an exploration into sound.”
For Baker, that trial-and-error brought a new kind of assurance: that the shaping she did in the studio was just as important as the attention she gave to her songwriting.
“Now it feels worthy to me to spend time trying to teach myself stuff I never learned, like modes and relative minors, and trying to hone the craft of music rather than live in the world of the cerebral all the time,” she says.
She told me she’d even blocked out time to practice guitar immediately following our interview. So if this is the moment when people finally give more attention to the art and craft involved in Baker’s music-making, she’ll welcome it.
“I like talking about music so much,” she says. “I’ve always enjoyed when people ask me about what pedals I use in studio or what kind of equipment I’m using, because that’s something that is factual and that is not attached to a question of morality.”